A Conversation with George Will on Liberalism and Conservatism

The conservative sensibility, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will, is “more than an attitude but less than an agenda.” In a recent discussion, Will spoke about his book “The Conservative Sensibility” (2019) with IHS President Emily Chamlee-Wright. The conservative vision, Will is apt to note, rests comfortably within the classical liberal tradition, which supports and defends individuals’ natural rights, limited government, and a broad pluralism that emboldens the diversity of expression in society.

George Will

Conservatism has a grounding in the natural rights doctrine. These rights are essential to the flourishing of people with our kinds of unchanging natures. Conservatism is founded on ideas rooted in classical liberalism, especially the idea that the individual is real and has agency. The Institute for Humane Studies is all about these ideas.

– George Will

At the beginning of the 20th century, these sensibilities became threatened with the ushering in of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. The Wilsonian vision, argues Will, rejects the natural corruptibility and permanence of human nature, insisting instead the possibility that human nature is malleable to political ambition.

This sweeping political vision transformed the trajectory of the United States and moved us further away from the vision that James Madison had intended, which seeks to enumerate the powers of government through constitutional constraints. “Constitutions are ways of putting bridles on ourselves,” Will observes. Wilson wanted to speed things up; Madison wanted to slow things down.

In addition, Will says that the institutional architecture that Madison helped fortify is what prevents the tyranny of government by majority. “Madison bequeathed to us a constitutional architecture of mitigated democracy, a form of democracy that gives us time to reflect and be thoughtful,” says Will. These democratic speed bumps are what ultimately protect the individual, the ultimate source of liberty.

Majority rule is not our fundamental value, the protection of liberty is. And majorities can threaten liberty.

– George Will

Will reminds his audience that when people imagine they can use the government to impose the common good, what they “need is a seminar on public choice theory. They need to be acquainted with Professor [James] Buchanan’s essay against the sentimental view of government, the romantic view of government. Understand government has its own motives, its own interests,” asserts Will.

In closing, Will addresses the emergence of populism from both the left and the right by firmly stating that conservatism grinds against the populist sentiment. In fact, conservatives “believe passion is a problem and government exists not to excite passions, but to damp them down and deflect them.” The conservative sensibility ensures that the rights of individuals are not forfeited, even under the overbearing weight of populist demand.

You can watch the full conversation with George Will on our YouTube channel. For additional videos, articles, and topics exploring classical liberal ideas, visit our website at TheIHS.org.

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